Book Week Day 6 – True To Our Feelings

It’s easy to think of emotions as the opposite of reason – unintelligent intrusions into an otherwise measured life. Or to think of them as if they’re a form of hydraulic pressure – to be contained unless (or until) they explode. Or to treat them as mere physiological events, nothing more than a surge of hormones, a quickening of breathing, a pattern of brain activity.

In True to Our Feelings, Robert Solomon mounts a convincing argument that emotions have a rich intelligence all of their own. He invites us to look at them through new eyes, and to see what it is that each of them has to show us about ourselves, our cares, what matters to us. By understanding our emotions more accurately, he argues, and by avoiding the simple reductionism that’s so easy to fall into, we can enrich our lives and develop more sophisticated responses to the world.

Each chapter in this book takes up the story of a different emotion or mood, and Solomon does much to rehabilitate the so-called ‘negative emotions’ to their proper place in the family of moods each of us experience. Written in an accessible style but with the depth and intelligence to bear fruit on repeated reading, this is a fabulous book for anyone who’d like to address their own emotions – and those of others – with more skill. It’s also a resource for helpfully attuning each of us to what moods might be trying to show us, but which we’re denying or ignoring.

The book is based upon a publicly available lecture series, The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions.

For a companion piece you could have a look at Solomon’s much earlier book The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. It’s denser, more philosophical, and has an comprehensive dictionary of moods at the back – some 60 of them analysed in detail, showing how each mood orients us to the world, brings us in close or distances us from others, has us feel superior or inferior, as well as what keeps each mood going and how it works to maintain self-esteem in the face of the circumstances of life. The dictionary itself is a valuable resource for understanding yourself and others, and in particular the unique worlds of possibility (some tight and closed, some wide open) that each mood brings about.

Book Week Day 5 – Tiny Beautiful Things

“There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding… Understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again. And again. You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of these things will have to do with forgiveness. “

Cheryl Strayed’s advice to her twenty-two year-old self from a viewpoint two decades further on, from her searingly honest, compassionate book Tiny Beautiful Things.

As well as writing novels, Cheryl Strayed was the for-a-while-anonymous advice columnist for The Rumpus. This book brings letters written to her about life, love, loss, work, identity – and her beautiful replies – together in one place. Many of those who write to her are in the midst of life’s great transitions and paradoxes and she responds with humour, kindness, depth and an unwavering belief in the dignity, strength and courage of her correspondents. All of this allows her to say what’s true, and what’s sometimes difficult to hear, in a way that invites the possibility of living with a whole heart.

“You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.”

Tiny Beautiful Things is a wonderful read from start to finish, and a necessary reminder that kindness is not the same as niceness, love need not be the opposite of truthfulness, and that it’s possible to talk about the deep concerns of human life in a way that’s at once humane and liberating. An amazing resource for any of us who want to muster the courage to face life’s difficulties, or to support others in doing the same.

Book Week Day 4 – Aping Mankind

This fierce, thorough, and immensely readable book is Raymond Tallis’ challenge to the contemporary trend of explaining everything about human beings either in terms of neuroscience or evolutionary psychology.

Explanations based on neuroscience in particular have become the accepted mark of serious grounding in many fields, even where the science is tenuous or is being used sloppily or inappropriately. These days it’s possible to give a veneer of scientific respectability to just about any subject by prefixing it with neuro-. And so we have neuro-leadership and neuro-coaching and neuro-justice and neuro-aesthetics. And in many cases huge claims are made about the nature of human beings and, from there, rules inferred about how to treat others and ourselves, from momentary glimpses of brain activity in an fMRI scanner.

Tallis, a scientist and physician himself, has much to say about the careless ways in which neuroscience – a field that has so much to offer in understanding the brain – is misused to justify claims in fields as diverse as law, social policy, management and education. But he has more to say about a bigger and more important topic – how peering into the brain can tell us little about what it is to be the uniquely social kind of beings that we are. We form worlds, layered with meaning and practice, which we inhabit together. And the understanding which gives rise to our actions, he argues, arises between us and can’t be found in the firing of neurons in the intracranial darkness. Another way of saying this: brains are clearly necessary to be human but are insufficient to account for the whole story of human life.

This book is important because of the way it challenges the cultural trend of misusing science in order to give a diminished, reductionist account of human beings. Hence the subtitle: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

This is a book determined to preserve the dignity and possibility of the human world by showing how we are much more than glorified apes and much more than clever computers made of neurons. It’s a fabulous read for anyone interested in the question ‘what is a human being?’ and for anyone concerned about how neuroscience is being misused to sell to us, manipulate, or to produce public and private policy that fails to take the dignity and humanity of human beings into account.

Book Week Day 3 – Conversations for Action

Fernando Flores was a minister in Salvador Allende’s government in Chile at the time of the Pinochet coup. In the introduction to Conversations for Action he writes movingly about the difficulties of this time, and the brutalities that followed, and wonders if the course of events in Chile might have been different had he and others in government found a different way of talking with one another that in turn could have produced more effective and coordinated action.

After a period in political imprisonment and his subsequent release, Flores moved to the US and took up the topic of conversations in earnest. This book, a collection of papers written for clients of his consulting firm, is a clearly articulated exploration of topics relevant to the bringing about of powerful coordinated action. It will be of interest to the many of us who have experienced the frustrations and difficulties involved.

Flores’ central argument is that it is through conversation that all human action comes about, and that our common sense about such conversations does not make much sense at all. We need to think again, and more clearly, about the kinds of conversation we have, about our tendency to leave out crucial steps or avoid important topics (often the ones that cause us anxiety), about the role of mood in shaping what’s possible, about the centrality of promises in coordinating action. And we need a new and more accurate understanding of the activity we call listening. If any of this sounds vague, remember that the purpose of this book is resolutely practical – bringing about conversations that can change things for the better.

A book with the potential to shift how you think about the background to all human relationships, and in particular how you think about – and take action in – the conversations that make up the vital human activity we call work.

Book Week Day 2 – Soul Without Shame

Soul Without Shame is Byron Brown’s deep, broad and practical guide to first knowing and ultimately freeing ourselves from the grip of the inner critic.

It’s the critic that has us hold back our contribution, doubt ourselves when there is no cause to do so, and also has us holding back others. Perhaps most importantly it’s the critic that keeps us tightly bound by the norms which surround us, necessary to begin with but ultimately a huge restraint on our capacity to bring what’s most needed. If we are ever to develop the capacity to speak up, to create, to make art, to lead compassionately and wisely, working with the inner critic is a vital step.

This is a book to be savoured, taken slowly. I suggest spreading your reading out over a year or so, studying each chapter and taking up the various exercises and practices as you go. It’s from these – coupled with what you’ll learn from Brown’s clear explanations – that the most powerful possibilities for your own learning will come.

As you read, you’ll see how the critic is a necessary part of our early development, how we keep it going in adulthood long after it’s served its purpose, how to recognise it in action, and how sneaky it can be, disguising itself as conscience or simply hiding itself away while it’s at work. You’ll also see how you can create some space and start to step out of its shadow.

A wonderful companion piece to Stephen Pressfield’s Do the Work
which takes on the same topic from the point of view of creativity and art – surely the activities at the heart of all leadership and principled human action.

Book Week Day 1 – How the Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work

This week, seven books in seven days.

Books that can change the way we think about work, or about life. And some books that have the possibility of changing the way we think about both.

Today, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, which lays out with clarity and precision the inner and outer ‘immune system’ that both protects us and makes personal and organisational change so difficult.

What we can’t usually see, the authors argue, is that as well as our enormous capacity to develop and change, each of us has within us a powerful set of hidden assumptions about the world that keep us within tight bounds. They keep us safe from the unknown, or from shame and embarrassment. But when our efforts to change bring us up against these assumptions we’re quickly stirred into fear or anxiety – as if we’re about to step off the edge of the known world. And until we can see that we’re experiencing this, and begin to test the edge for its accuracy and reality, change remains extraordinarily difficult – even change that’s sincerely desired.

The book describes practical and razor-sharp ways of working with our hidden immune system, both for ourselves and for the organisations in which we work. And it offers a powerful corrective to our attempts to push or force ourselves and others to change, and to the unhelpful language of ‘resistance’ that brings it about.

Passionate, wise, humane and clear – I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to bring about meaningful change in themselves or in their organisation.


We keep on talking, talking.

When we can’t face silence in the midst of conversations with our colleagues, with our teams, with our clients we’ve equated words with work. Or perhaps we’re afraid that silence might expose that we really have nothing to say.

And so we keep on speaking, filling the air with word after word, long after our words have become shallow, jargon, nothing-speak, space-killer, idle-talk.

In the endless talking, we’ve forgotten how to listen to ourselvesand to others.

And we’ve forgotten that in the quiet spaces, where there is room to breathe, that most of the important, difficult work is often, silently, being done.

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Getting out

I know your intention is to take care of others. You know it too. But have you ever looked at the effect of your care?

Does the way you leap in to offer help free people, or does it constrain them? Does it accord them the dignity of their adulthood, or infantilise? Does it allow them to do what’s right for them, or what’s right for you? Does it support them in becoming skilful on their own behalf or keep them dependent upon your assistance?

And, if you’re really prepared to look, can you tell whether your constant demonstrations of care actually help them, or do they mostly keep you feeling better about yourself?

Sometimes, genuine care involves holding back, melting in to the background, staying silent, teaching someone to help themselves, listening without any further action, or – once in a while – extending your trust and then simply getting out of the way.

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When a new interpretation is called for

“I can’t…”
“They’d never allow it…”

Given that you’re always inescapably in a story or interpretation of one kind or another about what’s happening…

And given that the actions that are available to you are those that are coherent with the interpretation you’re in the midst of…

And given that many coherent interpretations of any event or sequence of events are possible, including many that might not yet have occurred to you…

… surely what to work on most urgently and deliberately – when you’re stuck, or in difficulty, or suffering, or causing any of these to others – is finding a new interpretation of events

… so that new actions – especially those that lessen difficulties for everyone – become available to you.

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Power and force

Power and force are not the same, though we often confuse them.

Power: the enduring capacity to have your intentions realised in the world

Force: the ability to push, cajole, or threaten others to do as you wish

Power pays attention to nuance, relationships and timing. It draws upon the energy and commitment of others rather than stifling them. It enrols. It understands that much is not possible, and that much of what is possible is not possible now. It takes into account and relies upon the web of relationships of which it is part. It is patient and inclusive. It takes a long, wide view of the world.

Force is none of these. It demands. It is not willing to wait. It will use any means at its disposal to get a result – whether that is violence, the authority of hierarchy or position, or deception. It is of the moment alone. It has a narrow frame of reference. And it does what it does with little consideration of the cost.

As a result power, as I’m defining it here, feeds itself and the possibility of making an ever greater contribution. And force eats itself over time, undermining the very ground upon which it stands. Power is alive. Force is brittle and fragile.

Much of the time when we say that people are powerful, we really mean that they are adept at using force, because true power is rare, as is the mastery and sophistication required to exercise it.

And much of the time we keep on using force precisely because we have not yet understood the practical wisdom, subtlety and capacity to relate that power would really require of us.

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Are you so sure that everything you’ve decided should be left out of your workplace is left out for a good reason?

Or is it left out simply because “that’s what we do around here”?

The danger of this second position is that you inherit what you’re able to do, and how you’re able to be, from those who came before you. And their understanding of what was required might be based on quite different assumptions from what’s called for now.

Much of contemporary practice in the world of organisations still draws upon the principles of the early industrialists who were trying to turn people into efficient and predictable machines for the running of orderly and productive factories. They were interested in suppressing emotion, keeping people tightly in line, constraining creativity, preventing anything new from arising and keeping everything ordered like clockwork. It produced a particularly contained, constrained way of being in work, founded most strongly on the principle of always being in control.

In many quarters we still think that this is unquestionably what it means to be ‘businesslike’ or professional. We can hardly see the roots of this position, so taken-for-granted have they become. And we so invent constraints – subtle and overt, within ourselves and on behalf of others – to keep it all in place.

And it’s amazing that this is the case, when it’s clear how often what’s called for now is creativity, genuineness, imagination, responsiveness, care, aliveness, collaboration and a commitment to do what matters rather than rigidly follow the rules.

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Something you are doing

You’re never just in life, this situation, this moment. You’re also in a particular relationship with it.

So often this is transparent, like the air you’re breathing as you read this. But it’s illuminating to understand that the world you’re experiencing isn’t ever simply ‘the’ world.

Perhaps your relationship is to welcome whatever is happening. Perhaps you’re pushing it away, or denying it. Perhaps you’re treating what’s happening as a huge opportunity. Or perhaps as a curse or problem. Maybe you’re relating to what’s happening with a longing that it be over. Or maybe you’re trying to cling on to it, already mourning the end of it, even before it’s gone.

Another way of talking about this phenomenon is mood. Every mood – anger, joy, love, resentment, frustration, cynicism – opens up a particular kind of relationship to what’s taking place.

Can you see how your relationship to it all shapes so much of your experience and what’s possible for you at any moment?

That each brings forth a distinctive kind of world?

That what’s possible from resentment is different from what’s possible from anger or love? That what’s possible from relating to it all as a curse is different to what’s possible from an orientation of welcome?

Once you see all of this, you can first become an observer of your relationship to everything. Reflective practices can help here – a regular journalling practice and sitting meditation are two that are enormously helpful.

Much more importantly, once you can observe you open up a second possibility of taking responsibility for your relationship to it all.

Because while what’s happening might be just what’s happening, your relationship to it is something in which you’re always a participant.

Or in other words, the world you experience is never just happening but also, inescapably, something you are doing.

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On Words

To be a human being is to live in a house of words.

Words that can move others into action, or sow seeds of doubt and confusion.
Words that can coordinate our efforts, or scatter us apart.
Words that can reveal hidden depths in the world, or cover them up.
Words that can build relationships, or undo them.
Words that can heal, or hurt.
Words that can bring our intentions into being, or our hide them away.
Words that are congruent with what matters, or words that twist or distort it.
Words that bring out the best in people, or words that stifle it.
Words that illuminate, or words that cast into shadow.
Words that bring life, or words that deaden.

In all of this, it helps us to remember that the human world is founded on words.

That words matter.

And that this brings huge responsibility and huge opportunity, in every moment, to address our human difficulties and possibilities through how we listen and how we talk.

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How to look at others

Can you allow yourself, for a while, to look for what you’re grateful for about others?

It’s such an easy habit, perhaps supported quite powerfully by your own inner-criticto keep on looking for all the ways in which people are disappointing, hurtful, irritating, obstructing, confusing and frustrating to you. You may not even quite realise that you’re doing this – how your background mood has quietly become one of scepticism or cynicism or despair.

So perhaps you could take up the practice of looking truthfully for a while in a different direction: at what you can be genuinely grateful for in each person, however small.

Write it down. Make a list. A long, ever-growing list of what you come to see.

The point of this is not to blind yourself to your difficulties or frustrations but to open your eyes to a wider kind of horizon than is available to you now; to bring about new kinds of possibilities, conversations and relationship with all the people who, right now, you can only see as obstacles to your intentions; and to find how out they might be supporting you and taking care of what matters to you in many more ways than you can currently see.

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What to look for in others

What would happen if you oriented more often towards the basic goodness in other people?

Not some simplistic, positive-thinking way of pretending to yourself that everyone around you is nice or has your best interests at heart. That way lies a comforting and often harmful kind of self-delusion.

No, actually looking for the genuine goodness in each person that may not even be known to themselves. And trusting that everybody has it – is it – simply by virtue of being human.

Being able to find this in others might take some patient observation and discernment on your part, some practice. So that you’re not guessing. And so that you can overcome your own cynicism, disappointment, or frustration.

You might get a clue by observing closely what another person most consistently tries to take care of, even if inexpertly. Justice and fairness, looking after people, achieving important goals, bringing a unique and personal expression, developing knowledge and understanding, keeping options and possibilities open, having things actually happen, harmony and coherence – these are but a few examples.

Finding the basic goodness in others and in ourselves is a powerful project because it gives us something to rely on as we navigate the complexities of work and the rest of life alongside other people.

When we can’t see it we’re easily locked in a cycle of mistrust, defensiveness and judgement, seeing ourselves and others only as accidents waiting to happen.

But with it firmly in view, we have the best chance to call on and bring out what’s most noble and dignified in each of us – the part of us that wants to serve life even in the depths of our most troubling confusion, conflict and uncertainty.

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Ten ways to avoid learning

Ten skilful ways to avoid any learning that really matters:

  1. Demanding that you know what you’ll learn before you begin
  2. Fitting what you’re learning into existing categories and classifications
  3. Scepticism – the mood of “I’ll only engage when you prove the worth of this”
  4. Cynicism – the mood of “I’ve seen it all before, and it doesn’t amount to much”
  5. Insisting that you like it – that nothing troubles, upsets or confuses you
  6. Insisting that you understand every step as you go
  7. Forcing it to fit your schedule instead of giving it due time
  8. Demanding immediate results and obvious ‘takeaways’
  9. Trying to look good, or expert, or knowledgable
  10. Forgetting to play

How many of these are already the taken-for-granted practices of your workplace? Of your personal life? With what consequence?

And are you willing to do the risky and important work of standing up to any of them?

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Learning in London in September

I’ve just finished a two-day introduction to integral coaching with a wonderful group of ten people, held by the river in central London.

Two days of rich conversation, music, study, practice and the chance to learn how to powerfully support other people in their development in a wide variety of contexts. And an occasion for me to share some of the work that I find most joyful and most profoundly helpful to others.

The next opportunity to join a programme like this is coming up on 1st-2nd September, once again in London. Perhaps you’ll choose to join us.

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Constrain or Liberate

Everything you take to be true about another person can only ever be part of the situation.

For one part, you can only see the other from where you stand, from in amongst the commitments, values, expectations and way of making sense that are particular to you. To see this, just think for a moment about how differently someone’s brother or sister, lover, parent, friend, colleague or customer might describe the person in question.

For another part, there’s much more to every person than any of us can tell. Unfathomable depths, history, hidden intentions and wishes, longing, suffering, hopes, fears – many of which will be available only to the person in question and some hidden even from them. You can only guess at these, and your guesses are just that – a hunch about the inner world of the other. You can easily be wrong about all of this, even when you’re feeling most certain.

The consequence is that whatever account you have of another is never simple truth but always an interpretation on your part: a fitting together of what you can see and experience directly in a way that makes sense to you, in your world.

For any set of observable ‘facts’ there are a host of coherent interpretations you could choose, each which lead to different places. And there are better and worse interpretations available or, said more simply, better and worse ways of accounting for the other.

Some interpretations imprison you, and often the other person too. Interpretations that involve blame, resentment or rigid judgments tend to produce this, committing you to tight circles of action and emotion that cannot easily be broken. These are I-It interpretations, fixing the other as if they’re an object rather than a person.

Other interpretations can free you both, particularly those that invite curiosity and inquiry on your part. These are I-You interpretations, treating the other as a mystery to be understood rather than as an obstacle to be circumnavigated or a problem to be solved.

Which kind of interpretation you choose matters, because each leads to different kinds of action, to different kinds of conversation, and ultimately to different kinds of relationship.

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When there’s something important that needs deciding, on the basis of what do you decide?

What you like the most?
What will avoid feelings you dislike – fear, anxiety, shame?
What will win the approval of others?
What will have people like you?
What people seem to do around here?
What has integrity?
What’s ethical in this situation?
What will benefit you the most?
What will benefit those who come after you?
What will give results immediately?
What gives you a feeling of progress?
What creates something for the long term?
What’s expedient?
What you can get away with?
What has genuine value?
What’s wholehearted?
What’s art?

It’s easy to fall into a habitual, unexamined way of deciding – a reflex that shapes everything you do.

But you owe it to yourself and to others to become aware of what principles and habits guide your decisions, because it’s the cumulative effect of your many decisions that makes first a career, and then a life.

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Us and Them

It seems so obvious that the ‘us and them’ you’re experiencing in your organisation is really down to ‘them’.

If only they’d

grow up
see some sense
drop their cynicism
stop imagining things
actually listen

But something can begin to shift when you understand that in order for them to carry on being ‘them’ you have to actively be carrying on being ‘us’.

By looking at all the ways you are involved in keeping things going as they are (even the label ‘them’ is probably part of it) you’ll open up possibilities that weren’t there before.

What if you got as serious about growing up, seeing sense, dropping cynicism, stopping imagining things and actually listening as you demand of them?

You might even find out that beyond your story of ‘us and them’, you’re much more alike than you ever knew.

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Freeing up

How you understand the nature of human beings matters if you’re leading or participating in an organisation, bringing up a family, or taking part in society.

We seem to run many organisations as if we’re convinced that, just below the surface, people are a dark mass of selfishness, reactivity, laziness, resentment and despondency. How else to account for the ways we push, judge, pressurise, scare, imprison one another? So much of what we call ‘best practice’ does exactly that, even at the same time as it looks civilised, decent, and obvious.

Of course, all of those qualities are present in human beings. But are they our foundational qualities? Should we construct everything primarily as a way of containing them? Should we continue to convince ourselves that any other approach is impossible, futile, or simplistic wishful thinking?

What energy we would free up if we attuned ourselves instead towards the natural capacities for communication, connection, reciprocity, generosity, love, and forgiveness that we all possess. And what possibility if we oriented ourselves towards building organisations and societies in which they could reach their full expression.

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Shaken up

Exposure to the unfamiliar is vital for our development, and for waking us up to the possibility and the consequences of our practices and habits.

And yet so many of us in organisations are committed to avoiding this at all costs.

We hire people just like us. We design performance management systems to squeeze out difference, dissent, people who ask tricky questions, and people who have a different point of view. We buy in training programmes only where we know the outcome before we start – where it fits into our preexisting categories or concerns. We’ll accept or reject an idea based upon our capacity to understand it immediately. We develop conventions of dress, speech, mannerism so we can all be comfortably alike. We discourage certain emotions or speaking about what’s personal – both surefire invitations to be real with one another. We constrain people with behaviour and competency frameworks. We use the threat of shaming or loss of face or status to reign people in. We’ll prefer looking good to doing something that matters.

In short, we’ll do whatever we can to make sure nobody gets too upset (shaken up, turned around, personal, genuine, eyes opened in wonder). And our working world is vastly smaller because of it.

All of this has consequences not just for our own organisations, but for the wider world of which we are always a part.

Don’t you think we have a responsibility to be much more surprised, disturbed, confused, shaken up and changed than we currently allow?

Photograph by Kate Atkinson


One of the characteristics of human life is that what is familiar fades into the background. It has to be this way for us to cope with the world. Familiarity, and the background of understanding that it makes possible, is vital for our survival.

Imagine if this were not the case. What kind of life could we lead if we were constantly surprised by door handles, pencils, shoelaces, how to greet others, lifts, what to wear, watches, speech, furniture?

The complexity of the human worlds that we can construct and move between makes this all the more vital. The world of business, or the world of school, of parenting, of a particular profession – our participation in these require that we develop the kind of background familiarity which enables us to navigate and act without have to learn and relearn every time.

But familiarity, while necessary, also hides so much from us. Perhaps you can see this easily if you go to visit a city that’s unknown to you. Suddenly the details of buildings, architecture, language, dress come into view. That which would be unremarkable at home reveals itself in its beauty or in its capacity to confound or in its stupidity. Simple tasks such as buying a train ticket or navigating by bus across town show how complex they are, and how much skill they require.

All of these were present in your home town, but your very familiarity with everything had them fade from view.

If familiarity helps us to navigate, it also helps to conceal from us what’s there. We stop seeing the wonder and extraordinariness of our environments, tools and practices, just as we stop seeing their limits and costs. We lose sight of the effect of our houses, cars, meeting rooms, money, working hours, conversations, relationship to time, phones, people around us, sleep, and our practices of all kinds. In other words, familiarity is not just a way of coping skilfully with the world, it’s a way of going to sleep to it too.

Sometimes we need to undo all of this if we are going to have a chance to do more than sleepwalk from one situation to the next. We need to look at what’s most ordinary as if visitors from afar, or aliens from another world. We need to consciously and actively see what’s most familiar as if it were really quite strange to us.

And we need to consider exposing ourselves purposefully to the unfamiliar if we are to wake up from our dream and take the responsibility for our lives, work, organisations – and for each other – that is called for.


Not even yours

 At the entrance to a park near my home is a board which reads

No Dogs
Not even yours.

It’s a necessary sign because many of us live with a sense that we’re a unique kind of special. Or in other words, we’ve convinced ourselves that the ordinary rules of life do not apply to us.

Here are some of the ways I have noticed this phenomenon in my own life. Each of them is a form of narcissism, a sense that the world revolves mostly around me:

I secretly imagine that if I’m good enough I will be noticed by someone, or something, and be saved from all my troubles.

Or I secretly imagine I will not die (that death only really happens to other people).

I secretly imagine that I’m the one who is meant to save the world, and that I’ve failed unless I do.

Or I secretly imagine that I will be the one to win the lottery (even though the chance in the UK of 1 in 13,983,815 means I’m more likely to guess a stranger’s complete phone number on the first try, or get hit by a meteorite, than win the big prize).

I secretly imagine that I am uniquely suffering, and that nobody else can have it so bad.

Or I secretly imagine that I’m uniquely inadequate and broken, and that everyone else knows it.

I secretly imagine I can get away with treating others without care or concern, and that there will be no consequences.

Or I secretly imagine that I’m invisible and nobody will notice me.

Really growing up requires us to get over all of this. We have to find out, first, that we’re much more ordinary than we imagined. Second, that we’re really not at all different from anyone else in the world in our suffering and our hopes, our wishes and our confusion, our illusions and our longing. And third, that we really are not in the middle even if it always feels that way.

From there we discover that it’s precisely in giving up our claims to specialness and in welcoming our humdrum ordinariness that our wisest, most genuine, most compassionate and most creative contribution to life can come.


In many work places we’ve taken up the idea that not feeling too much is the mark of sophisticated business. Feelings make us vulnerable, we conclude. And we can easily imagine a world of unruly, chaotic, hurtful and confusing behaviour if people were to act on their emotions.

But feelings are how we distinguish what matters to us, and how we most readily and fully experience connection with other people. Adopting a cool, detached, ‘rational’ stance robs us of both of these, distancing us from our relationships and from our capacity to decide wisely.

Instead of cultivating professional detachment, how much better for us to cultivate deep facility with emotions, so that instead of reacting impulsively (our great fear) we learn to name them accurately, feel them fully, mine them for their wisdom, and respond thoughtfully to what they show us.

This is a better way to draw on the fullness of our human faculties in our work. And surely preferable to having our work reduce us to the narrow robotic shadow of ourselves that detachment requires.

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Paying attention

This moment, this particular experience arising in your particular body and particular mind, is absolutely unique. And irreplaceable.

And yet we rush by life, always in the pursuit of what’s next and what’s (apparently) going to be better than this.

We forget that each moment is already dying away to become something else, even when we’re not rushing and pushing and trying to have things happen.

Perhaps when we understand this, we’ll be ready to slow down enough to pay our lives the attention they deserve.

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Really listening

Mostly, we say we’re listening to others, but we’re hardly listening at all.

Mostly, we’re listening to ourselves, even when we look silent. We’re attending to our own inner dialogue, or inner critic, to our judgements about what we think is being said and, very often, to the part of us that has already decided what we’re going to say next.

While we’re listening to all this inner chatter we look, superficially, like we’re listening to the speaker. But we know, really, that we’re not.

Real listening involves a radical move: quieting ourselves inside, and setting aside our own concerns for a while. Then we can meet the other as an other, not as a problem to be solved, a way of bolstering our self-esteem, or an obstacle to be overcome.

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Chicken and Egg

What you read, watch, and listen to
Who you speak with, and what about
What you repeatedly choose to do and not do

All of these shaping you into the kind of person you are.

You’re being made by your actions and what you give attention to.

It’s easy to think that because you are a particular way you’re doing what you obviously must do. But this misses that what you’re doing shapes who you are too. So it’s not only that you do what a person like you does, but that you become the kind of person who does what you do.

This can be revelatory when you find yourself stuck in a situation that feels constraining.

Are you unsupported because people are untrustworthy? Or are you becoming someone who does not trust because you’re not trusting?

Are you resentful that others seem to keep such distance from you? Or are others keeping distance because of your resentment?

And are you busy and rushed because you have so much to do?

Or have you become someone who has so much to do because of the way you insist on busying and rushing all the time?

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Positive and Negative

Are moods really positive or negative? It’s easy to conclude that they are, and so discount a wide range of them as irrelevant or destructive.

I think that’s a mistake, because every mood brings something of value to the fore that we might otherwise miss:

Gratitude – connects us to the wonder and unlikeliness of our lives

Anger – reminds us of values that are important to us that have been transgressed

Love – brings forward what we treasure most strongly about people and situations

Fear – connects us with what we most depend upon, and want to protect, as well as keeping us alive to dangers that could threaten each of them

Happiness – shows us what satisfies and delights us

Disappointment – keeps central what we most care about and want to bring about

and even

Resentment – gives us a sense of dignity in the face of an apparent wrong committed by another

Resignation – shows us that we’ve concluded, with reason or not, that there is nothing we can do

Feeling a mood does not mean a particular course of action is required.

When we remember this, we can open to the illuminating possibility that our moods are not to be avoided, but to be experienced. And that they arise in order to teach us, in a revealing way, about what really matters most to us in our lives.

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